Eccentric Musings (jakaEM)

"I have undergone sharp discipline which has taught me wisdom; and then, I have read more than you would fancy." Emily Brontë


still figuring this place out - Jen W

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Friend of My Youth
Alice Munro
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Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature
Margaret Atwood
Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro ***this review is FULL of spoilers, and I am so not kidding.***

At page 200, precisely, I made a margin note "well into Pt 3, and still no point." I was starting to feel as though I was having one of those final exam nightmares: I was confronted with a multiple-choice question about this book, which I found myself totally unable to answer.

Never Let Me Go is:

a) a gigantic metaphor, or several. (I've got some theories about what, but they seem too small for the effort he's going to. Getting pissed off.)
b) not much more than a really drawn-out explication of a love triangle. (dear God, don't let this be it; now I'm getting REALLY pissed off)
c) an examination of the limitations and isolation that stem from social constraints as a result of class or group categorization and/or the painful transition of a way of life from old to new. (ok, but he's already written this story)
d) all of the above, and more, but if so--why bother with the SF conceit? (by now, I'm simultaneously pissed off, bored and confused--I swear, this is all we have up to p. 225)

Page 200, by way of a reminder, is roughly the spot that Kathy and Tommy start to talk about all the time they've lost not being together; about how it may be too late. This is the penultimate climax; the full truth of their situation will consume chapters 21-22, but will occur as a marked denouement and what might possibly be the most annoyingly expositional and anti-climactic climax I've experienced in recent memory. (We already knew all of this; the few small details or how the story came together doesn't add much, does it?).

At p. 200, or shortly thereafter, I started to finally get interested in the thrust and arc of these characters' lives. Yet, even as I did, my mind started to drift to situations in my own life and the excruciating sense of psychological pain, grief, longing and despair that occurs when one becomes conscious of time, perhaps misspent, having passed and little time being left. This was the one thing that at least got me thinking, although I had to leave the novel to do it.

A personal story:

A visit to my parents' home, just outside of Toronto, March 1995. I had been living in Vancouver, but was called home to be with my dad who had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer six months prior, and my mom who had been nursing him. The end was near. After running a mid-afternoon errand, I walked in and up the stairs in their split-level bungalow, down the main hallway past the kitchen and towards the back bedrooms. A band of sunlight from the kitchen window sliced the plush broadloom into alternating golden and caramel strips, illuminating a shaft of dust in the air and on the kitchen floor. My parents were conscientious housekeepers; since retiring, my father took great pride in maintaining their home. Vacuuming was a daily activity. Clearly, it hadn't been lately. I remember thinking all of this in a few seconds, as I stood there in the eerie quiet of my parents suburban home; standing there noticing the dust on the floor and thinking, I will vacuum. These are the details that occupy you when you are grieving and sad. You focus your mind on them, because otherwise, your mind goes to darker places. You have inane conversations; engage in silly arguments on occasion; make coffee and lunches; listen to music and daydream. You live your life in and out of these periods of normalcy, compartmentalized. You put the pain that you know is to come on a shelf.

I could hear my parents' voices--not what they were saying, just their voices--from the back room. I was immobilized, both wanting to know what they were talking about and not wanting to know. So much was not being said. We were each of us trapped in our own grief and fears, while also wanting, needing to be distraction, as compassion.

(This scene should so far feel familiar to those who read Never Let Me Go. The sunlight, the silly arguments, the focusing on commonplace detail despite the knowledge--conscious or not--of awfulness that is to come. Ishiguro leads us here really well; I give him credit for that.)

Having noticed my parents' voices, their words started to become clearer and I overhead my 64-year-old father--who less than a year before would have imagined he had much, much more time left but now he knew he had very little--say, using his tender diminutive for my mom (who was Evelyn): " ... it all went by so fast, Evvie."

It all went by so fast. For my dad, 64 years--40 of them with my mom. A full and rich life, albeit not without tragedy or sorrow, and so much more of that life he expected to have, should have had.

I wanted Never Let Me Go to make me feel some part of what I felt overhearing that. But it didn't. It came up short; it paled in comparison to the memory it triggered. Too much to ask of a book? Maybe, but I would have felt satisfied with even a partial parallel emotion to the one I experienced while reminiscing on a very similar theme. It certainly shouldn't have left me feeling SO flat. And then, why did it? Where did this book misfire for me?

We got what seems to be characteristic of Ishiguro: a long, slow build-up to a foregone conclusion. What I forgave in [b:The Remains of the Day|28921|The Remains of the Day|Kazuo Ishiguro||3333111] I can't forgive here because his aspiration was greater here. After stringing me along for well over 225 pages, Never Let Me Go spent chapters 21/22 trying to make a moral stand, take a political position. I found it tangential and wishy-washy, and it left me confused and annoyed instead of outraged.

It seems to me the whole point of the SF elements--such as they are--is to make a commentary on technology, bio and medical ethics, moral choices we must make and are making as a society. But if so, why did he spend 95% of his time focused just about everywhere else and especially on the relationships among/between the students, instead of scenarios that would have shown us their lives constrained or in conflict because of their natures as clones? He crams everything that relates to what must be his central theme into 20 pages of exposition. He almost seemed to be forcing a choice; leading us to a conclusion. What modern parallel am I supposed to be equating his cloning scenario to? Stem-cell research? Abortion? In-vitro fertilization? Cloning per se? He throws in the eugenics controversy by way of the "Morningdale" debacle, then drops it entirely. Surely if you're going to examine the moral dilemmas presented by cloning you need to give us more than that on eugenics! Put it into the harvesting context, if you will, but give us something that links the theme to the lives these characters were living...and do that earlier. Focusing on organ harvesting to cure cancer, well I gotta tell ya: that's going to create some mixed sympathies (see personal anecdote, above). No, no ... I'm not really an advocate for cloning-for-organ-harvesting purposes, however Ishiguro put up just about every barrier he could to dissuade me from sympathizing with these characters.

Ruth was a self-centred, mean-spirited, lying, manipulative, officious and arrogant piece of work; and Kathy, for all her laudable 'caring' and her granting of the benefit of the doubt at every turn, was a holier-than-thou doormat who also showed herself to be cruel at a critical moment even despite being an unreliable narrator! Finally, Ishiguro left us at the end with characters who were so resigned to their own fates, that frankly ... ok, ok, I'm a terrible cold-hearted bitch ... I was struggling to muster up any sense of why I should care when they don't (and what, exactly, was Ishiguro trying to do here in manipulating my sympathies for these characters)?

Now, it's still early relative to my finishing, and I'm more than up for being set straight about what I missed or misconstrued. This is one where I'm paddling against the tide of love for this book, so please, have at me!


ETA: Jul 19

In thinking about jo's comments below, I feel compelled to add that I fully acknowledge that my 2 stars reflects a failure of empathy and imagination on my part. An understandable one, perhaps, given what I was led to direct my empathy towards, but I do hold Ishiguro partly responsible for it. I didn't go where he wanted me to, because he didn't take me there. In fact, I felt manipulated and angered by his attempts to lead me there.

In the cold light of day and with a little more time to reflect, I feel now that Ishiguro has deliberately posed this scenario as an empathy test. He makes it hard to like his characters, and he withholds the full details of the situation, counting on leading the readers to water and--spurred on by his cries of alarm--making them drink.

I could feel my mule-like heels digging in in chapters 21-22. I felt coerced into taking a position for which there was very little objective or textual evidence offered. He tried to play on my sympathies, but he didn't invoke my empathy. That's the difference, for me, between EC&IC (as jo asks) and this one, and also between Oryx & Crake and this one.